‘Radically Changing Human Society?’
The family is the one area of human life in which profound change could transform society! The family, or what in modern times could more appropriately be called the ‘Isonuc’ (the isolated nuclear family) – two parents plus one or two children, cut off from society by the withering of organic communities and lacking the support and nurturance of the vanished extended family.
There’s little doubt that society needs transforming: numerous, persistent social problems are frequently rehearsed in the media and private conversation. There’s widespread consensus as to what these problems are, but (as always) little agreement about solutions. Great thinkers, like Freud and Nietzsche saw something essentially pathological about human nature, and the theme of alienation in human life goes back as far as the agricultural revolution and the advent of civilisation. Marx believed that transferring the ownership of the means of production from the bourgeoisie to the proletariate would solve these problems and bring about a positive and permanent transformation of society. However, Marxism’s fatal flaw was its complete failure to develop a realistic developmental and social psychology. Consequently, despite the vast amounts of idealism globally aroused by Marxism over the past hundred and fifty years, any realistic assessment of its effects has to be negative, if not negative in the extreme.
This colossal failure of social and cultural development has poisoned the wells of reform: we have become inured to a fatalistic pessimism regarding radical social change: idealists construct their utopias, but we are now convinced that trying to implement them in the real world (given human nature) will always result in distortions and betrayals of the ideals. Idealistic leaders, once having attained power, will become corrupt and egotistically pursue more and more personal wealth and power, to the neglect of their original programme. We are all far too familiar with this formula. We take refuge in the ‘best available option’ – marginal improvements in late capitalist society composed of atomised nuclear families – Fukuyama’s vision of the ‘end of history’. All attempts to escape this fate are doomed by the failings of ‘human nature’.
What then to do? Where to turn? Science? The prospects are not appealing: the Dawkins/Hawkin’s vision of the universe as inherently meaningless and governed by random chance does not seem to offer much solace with which to soothe the vast gaping wound of human, primal need. But there are (I believe) areas of modern science, for example; evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and developmental psychology, which (if synthesised into a comprehensive ‘Big Picture’ – which modern science, for institutional reasons, generally fails to do) could offer some hope. So, what then is this hope? What then is the collective message of these modern findings? What policy implications (if any) might they have?
Answer: the infant human brain; a) is almost infinitely plastic, b) has certain definite ‘expectations’ as to its environment and c) the ‘structuring’ of the brain during this early, vulnerable period determines a predominant amount about the rest of the individual’s life. What do these conclusions mean for human development, individual and societal? It means that the most important task for the human species (in terms of potential for positive transformation) is to try to ensure the optimal developmental conditions for every human infant from conception to, at least, five years of age. How to achieve this? The implications are vast! If such an effort were to be made, almost no area of human life would remain unaffected: socio-economic conditions, attitudes and values vis-a-vis the family, religion, culture, education, etc… Where to start?
The best place, let me suggest, is with our ideology of the family: it has come to pass, at least in the Western World, that the isolated nuclear family, geographically and socially mobile, under enormous economic and social pressures, is regarded as the optimal space in which to conceive and nurture human infants. Arguably, this has been the case since the agricultural revolution, that is for about the last ten thousand years. Up until about a century ago, however, the nuclear family was supported and assisted in this task by extensive kinship networks embedded in organic communities. Since then (and with a rapid acceleration from 1950s onward) these supportive networks have been severely eroding under the pressure of the ever-increasing speed and extent of capitalist economic development. One obvious consequence of this has been the rising divorce rates, running now in the West at between one third to one half of all marriages. Thus, now the integrity of the nuclear family itself is seriously threatened – not even the mini-centre can hold!
This ideal of the nuclear family (though now collapsing) has lasted for 10,000 years. Homo Sapiens, however, have existed (according to the latest estimates) for 200,000 years. And our primate ancestors, going back to where we split off from our closest living relative (the chimpanzee) go back at least five million years. During this long eon, compared to which the agricultural era is a mere flash in the pan, the actual space in which infants were conceived and nurtured was the hunter-gatherer group, consisting of around 150 people. What these comparative time periods mean is that the human organism is evolutionarily ‘designed’ to be raised, not in the isolated nuclear family, but in the extended hunter-gatherer group. This biological reality is doubtless the origin of the often cited (but never implemented) African saying that; “it takes two people to conceive a child, but a village to raise it.”
An effort to re-create the ‘psycho-social’ conditions of the hunter-gatherer group would be a radical social change, of the sort that Western societies have generally given up on. Let’s call this recreation of the ‘psycho-social’ conditions of hunter-gatherer society, ‘PRIMA’ – standing for Primary Rearing Institution & Mutual Association. Prima would not involve any change to the macro politico-economic systems of society. Prima can be implemented in a voluntary, ‘bottom-up’, piece-meal way. It’s popularity be could spread throughout the population by excellence of example – children from Prima would be superior in every way to children raised in the traditional, isolated, nuclear family (‘Isonucs’ for short); healthier, better-adjusted and more successful. Parents today are willing to move house to get their child into a better school. In the future, many will be prepared to give up the Isonuc for five and half years in order to guarantee a better life-history for their child. For all these reasons, the Prima avoids the fatalistic trap of failing by default through the corruption of human nature. Instead, it works with the grain of ‘human nature’ (if we take that to mean what we now call ‘evolutionary psychology’).